GAINESVILLE, Fla. — On a green patch of grass outside The Rock School, a small Christian academy on the west side of town, a group of international students used to gather to play soccer.
There were two Europeans, and four Africans, and a seventh kid, a 7-foot behemoth from Yaounde, Cameroon, who went by the name of JoJo. To anyone who watched Joel Embiid during those pickup soccer games, there was something that seemed to defy physics. He was blessed with the height of an NBA center, and the wingspan of a pterodactyl, but when the soccer games began on the playground, Embiid wanted the ball at his feet.
“I should have been a goalkeeper,” Embiid said, smiling. “but I was a midfielder.”
He had come to America to pursue the sport of basketball, an avenue toward a better education and a greater opportunity. But Embiid still had love for the game of his youth, the one he used to play back home. Fortunately for Embiid, the basketball program at the Rock School was filled with international kids. And in gym class, soccer was the sport of choice. So when the ball starting bouncing around the pitch, and Embiid would pull off some smooth pirouette or rifle a shot on goal, the gym teachers used to stop and watch.
“It was all these 6-foot-7 and 6-8 guys playing soccer,” said Justin Harden, basketball coach at The Rock School. “And then there was JoJo. I used to joke with people, but it’s almost a serious statement. I would take those guys and you could have beat a lot of high school soccer teams in the country, just because they were that skilled.”
One year later, Embiid is still challenging the accepted relationship between sheer size and athleticism, but these days, he’s mostly doing it on the basketball court. He is a freshman center at Kansas, averaging 9.3 points and 6.6 rebounds while coming off the bench for the 13th-ranked Jayhawks. He is playing just his third full year of organized basketball, but in seven months, he could potentially grow into the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft — if teammate Andrew Wiggins doesn’t already have dibs.
Kansas coach Bill Self compares Embiid to a young Hakeem Olajuwon, another African center who grew up playing soccer, and Embiid appears to improve a little more each day. Monday, as Kansas prepared to face No. 19 Florida on Tuesday night, Embiid returned to Gainesville, where he spent his last full year of high school and where he continued his startlingly quick transformation from African dreamer to potential star.
“It’s just like Hakeem,” Harden said. “He grew up playing soccer.”
The story goes that Embiid was discovered at a basketball camp back home in Cameroon. It was the summer of 2011, and former UCLA forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was holding a camp for young African players. Mbah a Moute, now with the Minnesota Timberwolves, saw this long-limbed kid running up and down the floor, and he knew that kid had to go to America, because that's where all the great ones went.
This is all true, Embiid said, but he actually first touched a basketball when he was 12. He grew up playing volleyball and soccer in Yaounde, a city of 1.8 million in central Cameroon. His father, Thomas, a military man, had spent years playing team handball, and he wasn’t sure basketball held a future for his young son.
“I played basketball when I was young,” Thomas Embiid said. “But it was 30 years (ago). But myself, I was a handball player.”
A few months later, Mbah a Moute placed Embiid at Montverde Academy in Montverde, Fla., one of the top high school programs in the country and the same school he had attended. When Embiid arrived, he was fluent in multiple languages, including French. But English was not one of them.
“I was alone,” Embiid said. “It was tough. But when I got to Montverde in Florida, there were at least four Cameroonians there, so it was easy for me to learn English and get to know everybody.”
Embiid continued to improve on the court, but he hardly played in games. Montverde had Dakari Johnson, a fellow 7-footer who earned McDonald’s All-American honors and signed with Kentucky. And Embiid was playing just his first year of organized ball.
“He was still a little bit raw,” said Florida sophomore guard Michael Frazier, who was a senior at Montverde that season. “But you could see that he was going to get a lot better.”
The next summer, with Division I programs beginning to learn of the 7-footer on Montverde’s bench, Mbah a Moute made another call — this time to Harden at the Rock School. Mbah a Moute told Harden that he had a 7-footer from Montverde, a kid that needed a school where he could get on the floor.
Harden had never seen Embiid play, but he said yes. Then he went to his computer, hoping to learn a little something about his new center.
“YouTube is wonderful,” Harden said. “I watched a couple of his hoops mixtapes, but it really only showed him dunking.”
A few months later, Harden realized why. Embiid was still learning the game, but dunking wouldn’t be a problem.
When Embiid wasn’t playing soccer at The Rock School, he spent his time making life miserable for the other kids in gym class. On dodge ball days, that meant pegging kids with what felt like a major-league fastball. On the days they played volleyball, Embiid showed why his father once thought Joel’s future would be on the volleyball court.
“We would play volleyball every once in a while,” Harden said, “and he would almost kill some people with some of his spikes at the net.”
In his first season at Kansas, the skills have translated. After Embiid recorded just one block in KU’s first two games, Self culled together a highlight tape of former KU center Jeff Withey and gave Embiid a simple message: He needed a rim-protector.
In KU’s next five games, Embiid averaged three blocks per contest.
“His ceiling is so high,” Self said, “and he’s a sponge.”
Embiid is still learning, and the same could be said of the Jayhawks. Two losses in three games will leave a young team looking for answers. But after eight college games, Embiid’s growth continues to accelerate, perhaps faster than anyone thought possible.
“A surprise,” said Thomas Embiid, the father that stands just a shade over 6 feet tall. “A good surprise.”